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Antowain Smith has never been afraid to speak his mind. So it is no surprise that he didn't mince words in responding to his demotion from starter to third-string running back.

Simply put, Smith believes he's been made the scapegoat for the Bills having one of the poorest rushing attacks in the NFL.

"The running game hadn't gotten off to a good start, so the blame has to fall on somebody's shoulders," he said following practice Monday. "I'm that guy."

The Bills are 25th in the NFL in rushing average and 16th in yards. But take away quarterback Rob Johnson's team-high 109 yards on 16 scrambles and a 4-yard reverse by wide receiver Eric Moulds, and the Bills' backs have gained just 185 yards on 75 carries. That's 2.5 yards per attempt.

Smith, who is now third on the depth chart behind Jonathan Linton and Shawn Bryson, is averaging a career-low 2.1 yards on 34 carries. Against the Green Bay Packers three weeks ago, he lost yardage on five of his 12 attempts.

Smith's critics say he doesn't hit the holes quickly or with the same assertiveness he did in his first two seasons. It should be pointed out, though, that holes have been difficult to find this year, and it's not as if Bryson (2.6 yards on 34 carries) is taking the NFL by storm.

Most running backs say they need to get the ball 20-30 times per game to be effective. Many are getting their wish. San Francisco's Charlie Garner and Denver rookie Mike Anderson, the top two rushers in the NFL, average 19 and 21 carries, respectively. Curtis Martin of the New York Jets averages 22 carries and Stephen Davis of the Washington Redskins gets the ball a league-high 23 times per game.

Smith has seen his carries drop from 17 to five last week against the New York Jets. His 11 carries per game thus far is one less than in 1997 when he was a rookie backup to Thurman Thomas.

Smith got the ball 18 times per game in 1998 when he ran for a career-high 1,124 yards, but averaged just 10 carries last season.

"For me, I feel like I really wasn't getting a fair opportunity at it," Smith said. "The last game, I only had five carries. Thirty carries (actually 34) in three games. . . . I guess that's enough carries to do your job. I guess."

Bills coach Wade Phillips stood by the decision to start Linton, who has no carries this season and has been limited to special teams the last two games while he recovered from bruised ribs.

"I don't know if everything's fair in life or in football or anything else," Phillips said. "We think this is the right thing to do. We've changed people and changed them back. We've done that with quarterbacks.

"I don't think I have to defend what I'm doing or what he's doing. It's not particularly because of him. I want to get Jonathan Linton, who was our leading rusher (last year), a chance to play, too. I felt the only way to do that was to start him and let him play."

Phillips said there is a chance Smith could play, but that will be hard with Linton and Bryson getting most of the work.

Even when Smith has played, he's limited to mostly first- and second-down run plays with a fullback or H-back in front of him. That's usually a sure sign to the defense that the Bills are going to run.

"Other teams watch film," Smith said. "They know when I'm in the game and you got a fullback in the game, they know what the play is. It's the same old thing I was in last year. No, I don't feel like I was put in the best situation to succeed as a running back."

Smith has never been a favorite of offensive coordinator Joe Pendry, who prefers backs who can catch as well as run.

Smith had 28 catches as a rookie in 1997, but only seven over the past two seasons.

"I feel like I can catch more balls than I drop, put it like that," he said.

Smith's teammates sympathize with what he's going through.

"It's a tough situation," said Johnson, who knows what it's like to lose a starting job. "Antowain definitely didn't get the 30 carries he wants, but that's not what happens here."

"I'm sure if Antowain got the ball enough times, he could be a 1,000-yard back," added guard Ruben Brown. "But who am I to say? I just block. That's for the coaches to decide."

Apparently, the coaches have decided on a running backs-by- committee offense, which means the situation will dictate who is in the backfield.

Whatever the rotation, Smith seems to be the odd man out. But is it permanent? He's in the final two years of his contract, but given the Bills' salary cap constraints, they might deem him expendable after the season if the running back depth chart remains as it is.

Smith is trying to take his demotion in stride, but made it clear he has no wish to be a backup.

"I want to play," Smith said. "I feel like I can help some team. If not this team, I can help somebody."

How does he feel about staying in Buffalo? Draw your own conclusions. When asked, Smith laughed and walked away without answering.

The Bills are off today, but several players will be making special appearances. Quarterback Doug Flutie was to visit Black Rock Academy, 101 Hertel Ave., at 10:30 a.m. to read some of his favorite stories to the students during an hour-long assembly. It's part of the team's Rush for Reading Challenge, whose goal is to challenge kids to read.

Ted Washington was to visit Buffalo Public School 45, 141 Hoyt St., as part of his Ted's Troops Program, which awards 30 students tickets to each home game, based on their attendance.

Henry Jones, Jay Riemersma, Ken Irvin and Chris Mohr are among the players attending the Athletes in Action Golf Classic and Vision Dinner at the Lancaster Country Club. The event benefits the local chapter of Athletes in Action.

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